Chicago, “You Are On My Mind” from Chicago X (1976): Saturdays in the Park

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Dear readers, I tried. I tried to talk my colleagues into putting off reviewing the infamous Chicago X album as long as possible, suggesting we take on the greatest hits album, Live in Japan, Robert Lamm’s Skinny Boy, even the “Live in ‘75” cds covering live shows in Maryland in 1975. Unfortunately, we’re now in the midst of what Perplexio said is “easily the weakest of the albums recorded at the Caribou Ranch – and some might say the weakest of the records from the original line-up.”

I’m going a step further: In my opinion, Chicago X is the worst album I’ve ever heard by a top quality band at the height of its popularity.

In 1976, Chicago was rivaled only by Eagles as the most popular American band. Five of their albums (from Chicago V through the greatest-hits collection) made No. 1 on the charts, and they were riding a streak of 17 Top 40 hits. Chicago sold out concert halls around the world, and had just come off a very successful summer double bill with the Beach Boys.

All this success should have resulted in a triumphant, well-written and produced 10th album. Instead, we get a complete mess, full of poorly-written songs, bad ideas, lackluster singing, and tracks that should never have made it out of the demo stage.

And what infuriates me most about Chicago X is that they had no excuses for the album to be this rotten. Unlike the 13th and 14th albums, nothing bad had happened to Chicago! All original band members were still living; nobody had left for a solo career or been fired. They hadn’t changed producers, engineers, or studios. The music industry-wide changes in the late ’70s hadn’t really touched the pop and rock charts yet: Disco was affecting R&B at this stage, and punk was big in the clubs in London and New York but wasn’t selling records.

Chicago was at the top of their game. Why did so many bad ideas suddenly take over?

“You Are On My Mind,” the album’s second cut, showcases one of those bad ideas. The song as written by Jimmy Pankow isn’t terrible; it’s got a nice Latin flavor and the lyrics are decent. I’m not a big fan of the cuica, the Brazilian percussion instrument that sounds a little like someone gasping for breath, but Laudir de Oliveira plays it well here.

So what’s wrong? Let’s review the liner notes for the Group Portrait box set:

“Pankow, who for most of Chicago’s career sang only backgrounds and demos, used other vocalists for all his best-known songs. But unlike (Robert) Lamm, he didn’t cast them; he let the band compete. ‘Make Me Smile’ was tried by Terry, Peter, and Robert,” Pankow said. “Terry wound up with assignment. ‘Searchin’ So Long’ was, again, sung by all three guys. Peter wound up with the assignment. I wrote my songs like I felt them, in the keys that I felt comfortable writing them in. I really didn’t have particular vocalist in mind when I wrote those songs. We’d have a sing-off.”

Pankow finally sang a lead vocal – reluctantly – on “You Are On My Mind” when he felt that none of the other vocalists could capture what he wanted. The same thing happened on “Till The End Time” on Chicago XI. “The reason I wound up singing those two tunes,” Pankow explains, “is that they didn’t make sense in terms of inflection and attitude until I went in there and I said, ‘Hey, guys, this is what I hear: and Guercio said, ‘You sing it!’ I went, ‘Oh man, you’re kidding,’ cause I had never a lead vocal in front of a mike in a studio before.”

It isn’t fair of me to criticize Pankow for not having a lead-quality singing voice. That would be like saying LeBron James can’t play football or noting that Vincent Van Gogh never sculpted. James Pankow is an amazing songwriter, trombonist and arranger, as anyone who’s listened to the first eight Chicago albums knows. In fact, I consider him the MVP of the band!

Pankow can sing on pitch, but he’s not a lead singer, and he’s in a band with three superb lead singers. So why did someone, or some group of ones, allow Chicago to release a song with him on lead vocals? Why did someone, or some multiple ones, think this was acceptable for this band?

And after all this, “You Are On My Mind” is actually one of Chicago X’s better songs! I’ve got a bad feeling about this album …

‘Saturdays in the Park’ is a multi-writer, song-by-song examination of the music of Chicago. Find it here at Something Else! each weekend.



CelticGal grew up in northern Indiana and now lives on the back cover of the 'Chicago XI' album. A fan of Chicago (the Good Parts Version, e.g. the lineups with Peter Cetera) since 1978, she is the author of 'The Famous Becky's Island Chicago Reviews' and 'Becky's Island Music Trivia Quizzes,' found at Contact Something Else! at
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